Review: Life-changing questions explored in compelling theatrical works in Coventry

Cristina Catalina in The Things We Tell Ourselves
Cristina Catalina in The Things We Tell Ourselves

Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Things we Tell Ourselves and Don’t Cry for Me, presented by Theatre Absolute at the Shop Front Theatre, Coventry

The monologue is a magical form. It can take almost any shape, involve any number of characters, evoke any scene. It is of course best at conveying interior states, but it can also deal with a good plot and plenty of action.

In The Things We Tell Ourselves, and Don’t Cry for Me, written and performed by Cristina Catalina and Stephanie Ridings respectively, we get something of both. Together they form the seventh and eight parts of a nine-part series that collectively asks: Are We Where We Are?

The question takes its inspiration from a line by American essayist Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, A Life in the Woods: “We are not where we are, but in a false position”. Described as a provocation by Theatre Absolute’s directors Chris O’Connell and Julia Negus, the phrase has been given to a series of writers as a starting point for free improvisations on the theme. We’ve had short plays on gender, justice, race and equality. We’ve had plays that fall into more traditional formats, with actors, characters, dialogue and so on; and we’ve had quirkier, edgier formats such as The Things We Tell Ourselves.

In a series of profound and arguably unanswerable questions to herself and to us, Cristina Catalania takes us by the hand and leads us through a series of life-changing questions, such as, What is truth?; Are we happy? and What’s that? and mingles personal anecdote with philosophical reflections in response. These are, of course, easy questions to ask, much harder to answer. She is a compelling performer, and her ‘naïve’, direct appeal to the audience through self-examination was absorbing, a bit like a personal blog, only much more interesting. We liked her, and so we travelled with her.

Don’t Cry for Me took a slightly more traditional approach, adopting a circular story form to tell the story of Stephanie Riding’s own family journey to see her brother diagnosed after many years with Asperger’s Syndrome. We felt with her the frustrations, the anxiety, the love for this clever, difficult young man. It was a confession of sorts, and it performed a neat trick by opening with the theme song from Evita and ending at the same place, only knowing it better.

Theatre Absolute does things differently. The space is an old fish and chop shop just off Coventry's shopping centre, opposite Argos, where skateboarders ride noisily past and the sounds of people pumping iron in the gym above occasionally intrude. Their performances aren’t the usual play format, but something you might expect at the Edinburgh Fringe or in edgy bars in London. It’s gritty, urban and located right at the centre of its environment, and it shines a unique light upon it.